Grissom, Virgil Ivan

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Virgil Ivan Grissom

Virgil "Gus" Ivan Grissom (1926–1967) became the second American to travel into space when the National Atmospheric and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961.

Air Force officer Virgil "Gus" Grissom was one of the National Atmospheric and Space Administration's (NASA) original crew of seven astronaut trainees for the nation's fledgling space project, Project Mercury, in 1959. He was aboard the Liberty Bell 7 when it launched on July 21, 1961, making him the second American after Alan B. Shepard to travel into space. NASA chose Grissom to lead the first two-man space flight with John W. Young on Gemini III on March 23, 1965, and he demonstrated such superb piloting and leadership skills that NASA chose him as commander of the Apollo I mission in 1967. It was while preparing for that mission that Grissom, age 40, and two fellow astronauts died in a fire inside the Apollo capsule.

Early Life Less Than Auspicious

Born on April 3, 1926, in the rural southern Indiana town of Mitchell (population 3,000), Grissom was the oldest of four children. His mother was a housewife and his father worked at the faltering Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, making a salary that let his family live fairly comfortably in their modest home even during the worst part of the Great Depression. Although his short stature inhibited him from playing any sports at Mitchell High School, he participated in the local Boy Scouts and served as leader of the group's Honor Guard. Like many of his peers, he worked to make spending money, delivering newspapers twice a day all year and picking fruit in the town orchards. It was during high school that Grissom met and courted Betty Moore, whom he would marry in 1945.

Meanwhile, Grissom was not impressing his teachers with his academic prowess. Unlike most of the people with whom he would later work at NASA, Grissom seemed to lack the drive and determination associated with those who reach the upper echelons of achievement required to become an astronaut. He did well in math, but his teachers later recalled that Grissom seemed to drift here and there without any sense of purpose or direction.

When World War II began, Grissom (then a senior in high school) decided he was interested in aviation. He enlisted in the Air Force and reported for duty in 1944 shortly after he graduated. He took a brief leave to marry Betty in 1945 and returned immediately to his base, hoping fervently that he would begin receiving flight instruction and then go on to flying combat missions. However, his dreams were thwarted when Japan surrendered later in 1945 and the war ended. Condemned thereafter to a seemingly endless rotation of tedious desk jobs, Grissom requested a discharge from the Air Force, which was granted in late 1945.

Back in the civilian world, Grissom quickly realized that his high school degree and short stint in the military were not enough to get him very far in business. His first job out of the military was as a door installer for a school bus manufacturer in his home town of Mitchell—an experience that convinced him that he needed a college degree. He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and decided to pursue studies in mechanical engineering. He attended classes during the day and then worked 30 hours a week as a short-order cook at a local diner after school. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a long distance telephone operator. A small grant from the GI Bill helped them to afford a tiny apartment, and Grissom graduated with his degree in 1950.

Aviation Interest Sparked Drive to Succeed

After receiving his degree, Grissom began looking for professional job as a mechanical engineer, but his heart was not in the search. What he truly wanted to do, he now realized, was become a test pilot. With this new goal set in his mind, Grissom suddenly became determined and ambitious. He reenlisted in the Air Force, completed his cadet training, and won his "wings," meaning he was now certified to fly airplanes. By 1951, he was being deployed to Korea with the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron to complete 100 flying missions. He named his F-86 Sabre jet "Scotty" after his first son, born in 1950, and finished his required missions within six months. The Air Force denied his request for twenty-five more and recalled him to the United States, awarding Grissom both the Air Medal with cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.

From 1951 to 1957, Grissom worked at a number of different assignments, including teaching new cadets to fly—a job he discovered could be even more dangerous than his earlier combat missions. Meanwhile, his second son was born in 1953. Grissom spent as much time as he could accumulating flying hours and fine-tuning the skills that had gotten him through combat unscathed. By this point, his colleagues and superiors acknowledged Grissom as the best jet pilot they knew.

Dream of Becoming Test Pilot Came True

After further special instruction at the Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Grissom was sent out to California for test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base. He earned his test pilot credentials in 1957. Back at Wright-Patterson, the Air Force assigned him to testing out new jet fighters.

Some months later, Grissom received an official "Top Secret" message ordering him to report to a location in Washington, D.C. wearing civilian clothes and telling him not to discuss the matter with anyone. Mystified and anxious but intrigued as well, the pilot followed the strange instructions and discovered that he was one of 110 military test pilots whom NASA had invited to learn about the country's new space exploration program, Project Mercury. Each of the men was required to undergo an exhaustive battery of psychological and physical tests. Grissom performed well enough that he was one of the finalists until a doctor suggested that he might have hay fever. When the pilot pointed out that there was no pollen in space for him to be allergic to, the doctors could not argue. In April 1959 the test board admitted Grissom to Project Mercury along with six others, making them the first American astronauts.

Project Mercury Space Exploration Program Launched

After moving his family to Langley Air Force base in Virginia, Grissom was sent on an exhausting round of training sessions all across the country, learning survival techniques, doing planning and preparation, overseeing spacecraft design and productions, receiving additional flight instruction, and (his least favorite) speaking to the public and press to advertise the new program. The goal of Project Mercury was to make Americans the first people to travel into space, but on April 12, 1961 the Soviet Union took the honor when Russia'sYuri Gagarin took the Vostok 1 into orbit around the Earth for one hour and 45 minutes. On May 5, 1961 one of Grissom's Mercury colleagues, Alan B. Shepard, became the first American in space when he took the Freedom 7 into a fifteen-minute suborbital flight, but this feat was nothing compared to Gagarin's.

NASA chose Grissom to carry Shepard's success further, sending him up in the improved Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on July 21, 1961. The flight went well and the capsule returned to Earth fifteen minutes later, splashing down with its parachute into the Atlantic Ocean. However, Grissom almost drowned when the hatch of the Liberty Bell 7 blew off unexpectedly, flooding the vessel almost instantly. Grissom managed to escape the capsule, but his spacesuit started taking on water as well. Multiple helicopter recovery crews fought to keep the Liberty Bell from sinking, not realizing that the astronaut was about to drown for the second time. Finally, one of them dropped a lifeline that he managed to grab. Much to his regret, the Liberty Bell sank to the bottom of the ocean. It would not be recovered until a salvage expert brought up the space capsule in 1999.

Some days after the incident, reporters peppered Grissom with questions about the hatch malfunction, mostly ignoring the success of the actual space flight. Always taciturn and uncomfortable in front of the press (eventually earning the nickname "Gloomy Gus"), the astronaut tried to be patient and honest, admitting that he had been scared during the episode but that he had in no way accidentally caused the hatch to pop off prematurely. The press ran with the admission, submitting headlines such as "Astronaut Admits He Was Scared!" and continuing to call his actions into question. Nevertheless, NASA was convinced of the astronaut's skill and innocence and presented Grissom with its Distinguished Service Medal. He had corroborated Shepard's findings and paved the way for the first American orbital space flight. However, the loss of the Liberty Bell and the continued uncertainty as to what caused the hatch malfunction would always haunt Grissom.

Took Control of Gemini

NASA's next project was for an intermediate phase space program called Gemini. Grissom never imagined that he would be involved in another space flight, but when he realized this might be his last chance he eagerly took part in the preparations. In fact, having moved his family to be near NASA's new Manned Space Center near Houston, Texas, it was Grissom who designed the cockpit of the spacecraft so that everything was situated in an intuitive way. Mounted on a mammoth Titan II rocket that would carry it into space, the craft, which Grissom named Molly Brown after the popular Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown in ironic reference to his earlier misadventure, was meant to be piloted (unlike the Liberty Bell 7).

NASA chose Shepard as the pilot for the first Gemini flight, and Grissom as his backup. However, soon before the first launch, Shepard became incapacitated by an inner-ear disorder and Grissom had to take over command of the flight. He continued with the rigorous training schedule leading up to the flight, and on March 23, 1965 he and copilot John W. Young lifted off. Their mission was to test all of Molly Brown's main operating systems and to see if they could effectively maneuver the craft with their controls. There were also science experiments to carry out during the five-hour flight and testing of the NASA-designed dehydrated astronaut food. Grissom skipped the latter and gratefully indulged in a corned beef sandwich that Young had smuggled aboard. The Molly Brown splashed down hours later after three smooth orbits around the planet and flying eighty thousand miles. He was a national hero, and the recipient of tickertape parades in cities around the country.

Disaster Struck

Grissom remained closely involved with the Gemini Project over the next two years. Meanwhile, engineers were working on the spacecraft that NASA hoped would soon take Americans to the moon. On March 21, 1966, NASA named Grissom to be commander of the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission. With his crew, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Grissom started to inspect the spacecraft that had been designed for them. They were immediately displeased by what they saw. Some of the craft's key systems were erratic or even inoperational at this late point, but the program was in full swing and NASA pushed for preflight testing to take place as planned in January 1967 despite Grissom's repeated warnings that the vehicle was not up to par.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo crew was conducting a simulated mission aboard the new spacecraft when a fire started. The atmosphere of pure oxygen caused the flames to rage wildly inside the small capsule, quickly suffocating and killing Grissom, Young, and Chaffee before the technicians could even open the hatch. An investigation into the incident found that the fire was probably caused by a spark from a short-circuiting component. Grissom was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. After his death, many people remembered the astronaut's 1959 comment to the press about his work with the space program: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." Betty Grissom published a book called Starfall about her husband in 1974.


Barbour, John et al, Footprints on the Moon, The Associated Press, 1969.

Boomhower, Ray E. et al, Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut,, Indiana Historical Society: Indianapolis, 2004.

Swenson, Loyd S. et al, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA History Office, Office of Policy and Plans: Washington, D.C., 1967.


New York Times, January 28, 1967.


"Detailed Biographies of Apollo I Crew—Gus Grissom," National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (November 20, 2004).

"Virgil 'Gus' Grissom: Hoosier was one of America's original astronauts," The Indianapolis Star Online,–gus/grissom.html (November 30, 2004).